In my review of John L. Schellenberg’s book The Hiddenness Argument I offered the following scenario as a possible reason why God would choose to defer the initiation of personal relationship with a non-resistant nonbeliever:
“It is possible that in the decade during which she is an atheist, Liz will bring many resistant nonbelievers to a greater understanding of absolute goodness, an understanding which provides a crucial step for those individuals eventually becoming non-resistant and then later moving into a personal relationship with God. And counterfactually, had God revealed himself to Liz at an earlier time, her witness as a theist would have been rendered ineffectual for these particular individuals that God wanted to reach. (Perhaps they would have tuned out Liz’s evangelical Christian preaching about the personal absolute goodness, but they carefully assimilated her preaching about impersonal absolute goodness.) Thus, God providentially delays revealing himself personally to Liz because he can reach people through Liz’s state of nonbelief that he would not be able to reach through Liz’s state of belief.”
In the discussion thread for the follow-up article “On Divine Hiddenness: J.L. Schellenberg Responds to My Review” Jason Thibodeau offers the following rebuttal to that scenario:
“Here is one reply to your objection, Randal: In the example, God is using Liz merely as a means to further the goal of bringing more people into a relationship with God.
‘God providentially delays revealing himself personally to Liz because he can reach people through Liz’s state of nonbelief that he would not be able to reach through Liz’s state of belief.’
“Even when the goal that is sought is of such high value (as it would be in this example), it is morally wrong to use a person in such a way. The problem is that Liz has not consented to God’s using her in this manner. Furthermore, it is also difficult to see how Liz could rationally consent to being so-used. After all, for her to consent, she would have to forgo for ten years the greatest possible good for a human being. Further, the plan requires that Liz not consent. It is not just an accident that Liz cannot consent, it is built into the scenario. Thus God’s plan involves using a person in such a manner that her consent is not possible. This is not morally acceptable.
“Now, perhaps one might think that Liz’s consent can be sacrificed given the value of the end goal that God seeks (that is, bringing more people into a loving relationship with him). However, this reply cannot succeed. This is because the goal can be reached in a way that is consistent with acknowledging Liz’ dignity.
“God could, if he wanted, reveal himself to Liz when she is 20 rather than 30. He could let her know that he would like her to join him in his efforts to reach out to atheists. For this plan to succeed, Liz must not reveal that she is a believer (otherwise the atheists might be unlikely to pay attention to her arguments). Instead, she should focus her efforts on bringing non-believers to a greater understanding of absolute goodness. The opportunity to play such a crucial role in God’s plan is one that Liz could rationally consent to, should consent to, and would consent to. Therefore, God can make Liz a part of his plan and achieve the same goal without using Liz merely as a means. Given that it is wrong to use people merely as a means and in ways to which they could not rationally consent, this is the plan that God would have to choose. Thus, contrary to your analysis, If God exists, Liz would not be in a state of non-resistant non-belief in God for ten years.”
The core of Jason’s objection is as follows: “Even when the goal that is sought is of such high value (as it would be in this example), it is morally wrong to use a person in such a way. The problem is that Liz has not consented to God’s using her in this manner.” (emphasis added) Jason later adds, “the goal can be reached in a way that is consistent with acknowledging Liz’ dignity.”
To sum up, Jason apparently believes that it is morally wrong to use a person without their personal consent to benefit others because that is a violation of that person’s dignity.
Of course, the objection only works if one accepts Jason’s Principle. I don’t accept it, and thus I don’t believe Jason’s objection to my rebuttal to the hiddenness argument succeeds.
But why do I reject Jason’s Principle? Ahh, that’s the question, isn’t it?
Simple, I can produce counter-examples in which an individual may use a person without their personal consent to benefit others without violating that person’s dignity. Indeed, I believe the Liz case is just such an example. I don’t think Liz’s dignity is violated in this scenario at all, and Jason’s intuitions that the matter is otherwise lack probative force for me to rethink my intuitions in the matter (sorry Jason, but that’s the way it is!).
Having said that, is there a way to move this beyond a stalemate? Certainly. Here is another scenario for those who find Jason’s Principle intuitive to rethink that support:
Jones has two children, Billy and Bonnie. Billy is autistic and he needs the soothing strains of violin music to calm down. Bonnie plays the violin and she practices every day. Jones requests that Bonnie practice in the evenings when Billy is home rather than the mornings when Billy is in therapy. That way, Billy can benefit from the soothing effect of the music.
When Bonnie is eighteen and preparing for college her father takes her aside. “Bonnie,” Jones says, “Remember how I asked you to practice in the evenings all those years? The reason I asked you to practice in the evening was because the music soothed Billy. And now look at him. Over the last few years as you’ve played Billy has emerged from his shell and has come to enjoy a rich emotional and social life that would have been unavailable to him had you practiced in the mornings.”
Has Jones the parent committed an immoral act by failing to secure Bonnie’s consent to practice in the evening as a benefit to her brother? I don’t think so. On the contrary, Jones is fully within his rights as a parent to require Bonnie to practice in the evening in a way that benefits her brother. And it would be proper for Bonnie in retrospect to look upon those difficult evenings of practice with a deepened joy and satisfaction in the recognition that her playing had benefited her brother so wonderfully.
By the same token, God is fully within his rights as creator and sustainer of all things to postpone a personal relationship with Liz by a decade in a way that benefits other people. And just as Bonnie can now appreciate the way that her practicing benefited her brother, so Liz can appreciate the way that her struggles with belief benefited those she encountered.